Does Bioware’s loot-shootin‘ baby deliver on its Iron Man power fantasy? Our Anthem review tells you how its technical flaws are softened by its stellar combat and flying.
I like Anthem much more than the 3.5 Skulls out of 5 I’m going to give it at the bottom of this review may suggest. On a 1-10 scale, that’s a 7, which— as someone who reads and writes a lot of game reviews— I know suggests a pretty average, maybe mediocre, experience. That’s not how I feel about Anthem.
BioWare’s rootin’, tootin’, lootin’, shootin’ answer to Destiny is a triumph of game feel. While the famed RPG developer has historically been known for gripping, choice-driven narratives that feel pretty meh to play, with Anthem, the teams at BioWare have outdone themselves, delivering an exhilarating roller-coaster ride of soaring and shooting. Minute-to-minute, Anthem feels as good as an Iron Man-simulator should feel.
And you are this particular Iron Man or Woman, the pilot of a fully customizable flying exosuit, and a gun for hire (known here as a “freelancer”) helping to keep safe the citizens who call the game’s hub world, Fort Tarsis, home. Most of your time in-game will be spent beyond the walls of the fort, taking on missions, contracts, and strongholds in the lush green world of Bastion.
I never got tired of exploring Anthem’s world. Taking to the skies is simple and intuitive, and the javelin’s tendency to overheat pushes you to look for outcroppings to run along and waterfalls to fly beneath. When your health ticks down into the red, flight also provide for exciting escapes. When the big bad Dominion’s forces are overwhelming, ejecting to the sky above the battle’s fray provides all the functionality of getting into cover, but without slowing the frantic pace. From this vantage point, you can switch from flying to hovering, firing down at enemies’ weak spots from beyond their grasp.
And, the shooting, from whatever angle, feels extremely good. After plenty of time playing Fortnite, it’s refreshing to hop into an online third-person shooter that feels tactile and crunchy to play. While Anthem’s roster of weapons is severely limited when compared with other shared world shooters like Destiny, the firearms that currently occupy the armory are all fun to use. Shotguns, assault rifles, snipers and pistols all have a satisfying punchiness.
That shooting is supplemented by javelin-specific abilities. Over the course of Anthem’s campaign, you’ll have the opportunity to unlock four different javelin classes. The Ranger is a sturdy all-arounder; a base model javelin to learn the basics with (who, not coincidentally, you’ll inhabit for the tutorial mission). My favorite, the Interceptor, is swift death, melee-oriented greased lightning that unleashes a flurry of blows for its Ultimate ability. The mighty Colossus is slow-moving but powerful, with a lengthy health bar and a physical shield it can heft to hold off enemy attacks. And the Storm is a mage-like mech with the ability to summon elemental attacks, raining down lightning, fire, and ice on any opponent foolish enough to get in its way. Each suit feels significantly different, and the fact that one player can unlock all four—rather than having to start the campaign over as a different class—makes it easy to experiment and find the right fit.
Combat and flight— frequently nestled together as snugly as a freelancer in their metal death suit—form the beating heart of Anthem. Unfortunately, BioWare doesn’t do nearly enough to vary the activities you use these verbs to accomplish. Probably 90 percent of the missions in Anthem follow a nearly identical formula: fly to a location, fight a ton of enemies who are almost always arranged in an arena-style circle around you, then collect the loot that the big ones drop at the end of the fight. There are variations—gather some items while you fight the enemies; fight the enemies then move to a different area and fight some more enemies—but, by and large, Anthem relies on the same structure over and over again.
As a result, I forgot most of Anthem’s missions the second they ended. Some, like the first and final missions of the campaign, drop you in unique settings, which provides a welcome change. But, most are memorable, not because of anything that happens on the sortie, but rather, because of the story beats that bookend them.
Generally, that story—communicated through buzzy voices in your headset during missions, and through first-person cut scenes back at the fort—worked for me. There are problems—it relies overmuch on the player’s codex to explain the backgrounds behind all the Proper Nouns it evokes; the player character is less malleable than past BioWare protagonists, and about as interesting as a silent protagonist; your choices are effectively meaningless—but, generally, it does a solid job of telling an epic science fantasy story with a cast of characters that I mostly liked. While the overarching story is sometimes hard to follow, I found it easy to get invested in the personal drama.
But, no matter how much I like what Anthem is doing, plentiful bugs still seem to be keeping many players from experiencing it. The problems that hamstrung the game’s demo—defined mostly by server issues which rendered it unplayable for many players—have mostly been resolved. But, they left new issues in their wake. One of the random players I tackled the second-to-last mission with said that he had attempted it three times prior but had been unable to progress because of glitches. Sure enough, during our run, we encountered a bug that prevented the mission from loading correctly, resulting in the game sending endless (genuinely endless) waves of enemies at us without offering a way to progress. I started experimenting because I didn’t want to replay the lengthy mission from the beginning, and found that if I let myself die, it reloaded our squad into the mission at the right point. This moment was satisfying; not because the game was working correctly, but because I was able to overcome the game’s brokenness.
My hope is that BioWare, too, will be able to overcome the ways that their game is broken. Since that demo, Anthem has steadily grown more stable. Some issues, though—like the repetitive mission structure—run deeper than glitchiness. But, Anthem’s core mechanics are satisfying, its world is enticing and its characters, by and large, are charming. With this review done, I will continue to play it. I want Anthem to get better, and I only hope that EA will give BioWare the time and resources to make this game as good as it can be.
As it stands, it’s still worth a shot.
Anthem review code for PC provided by the publisher.
Anthem is out now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.